Sunday, September 28, 2008

How I Got That Story: Adam Sobsey

The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Arts Criticism talks about his work.By Rich Knight

Adam Sobsey's favorite part of his job should be obvious: He gets paid to read new books. "I get to read books I normally wouldn't read otherwise," Sobsey says.

When he's not doing book reviews for the Independent Weekly or writing theater reviews for The News & Observer in Raleigh, Sobsey spends his time swimming in his own text, writing plays about Ezra Pound and about himself growing up in the 1980s. He's also tried his hand at a novel, but hasn't had the best luck finishing it. "I've been given a new appreciation for writing books," he says.

How did you get into the business of reviewing books?

I had been a freelance theater critic for The News & Observer for about four years and the arts editor, David Fellerath, asked me about writing theater reviews for the Indy. They only had one drama critic, and it was a struggle for him to make it to everything. The N&O prohibits its writers from covering the same subject for other publications, but David was actively looking for writers. With my background in literature, I became a candidate to cover books.

You are a playwright; does that ever get in the way of your time reviewing books?

More the other way around. I went away for five months to write plays this year, and only wrote one piece for the Indy while I was gone. I love writing book reviews, but if I had to choose, I'd choose playwriting.

Do you like movies at all?

I used to be a really big moviegoer, but I hardly ever go now. I [actually] haven't been to the movies since I saw The Darjeeling Limited. I'd rather just stay home and read. I don't have a television. I don't have an iPod, I only have CDs. I'm still pretty 20th Century.

Your articles tend to offer a bit of backstory about the authors you're critiquing. What do you think an author's past says about their current work?

That's true of two of the reviews I submitted for the AAN Awards, but more an exception rather than a rule. I usually just focus on the book I'm reviewing. In the case of the books by David Guy and Larry Brown, I think an awareness of their pasts will help any reader to better enjoy their books.

How does a book review in an alt-weekly differ from one in a daily?

I feel less pressure to make a consumer judgment -- buy the book or don't -- when I write for the Indy, which feels to me more like a place to interact with a book rather than merely rate it -- largely because a) it's got a heavy arts and culture component, and I feel justified in looking more closely and deeply at what I'm reviewing, and b) my editor encourages a more essay-like style rather than just the standard thumbs-up-or-down reaction. Also, I often have more space in the Indy than I do when I write theater reviews for The News & Observer, so there's an opportunity for me to say more about what I'm reviewing, either specifically or more broadly. I'm more comfortable in the Indy with using language and syntax that might be considered too literary in a daily, as well. The News & Observer cuts words like "misprision" and "abjure" when I use them.

When you write your reviews, do you expect your audience to have a smidgen of knowledge about the writers you're talking about?

I imagine they know at least a little about literature or they wouldn't be reading book reviews, so I write for an audience that I imagine has some background in the "canon" and don't hesitate to make references to authors like George Eliot and John Cheever. But most of the authors I write about aren't really famous ones -- although a fair number of people in Durham are probably familiar with David Guy, since he lives here -- which is why I sometimes make a point of offering some biographical or literary context.

What do you ultimately feel is a book critic's purpose?

Ultimately, to champion a great art form, to ask from it as much as it can give, and to read and write for a community of readers who take their reading -- of my reviews and of literature as a whole -- into the world with them every day.

How I Got That Story: Jeffry Cudlin

Posted September 18, 2008: How I Got That Story: Jeffry Cudlin-The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Arts Criticism talks about his work.By Rich Knight

Jeffry Cudlin knows that his home city, Washington, D.C., isn't the hippest place in the world when it comes to his passion. "D.C. is a pretty funny place for the arts," the art critic for Washington City Paper says. "Somewhere in the background, there's always hand-wringing over the fact that we're not New York."

Coming out of the University of Maryland with an MFA in art, Cudlin spent his time teaching art theory before he got his current gig. Moving into journalism, he learned to tone down his artsy jargon. When he's not discussing art, he's usually painting.

How did you get into art criticism?

I've always been something of a writer -- as an undergrad, I did a lot of editing for various publications at the University of Virginia. I'm an art-history nerd, too.

I first moved to the D.C. area in 1998 or thereabouts, [and] I always admired Glenn Dixon's writing for the Washington City Paper. Dixon wrote reviews that were smart, dense with cross-disciplinary references, and irreverently funny, all at the same time.

After I finished my thesis and started teaching at the University of Maryland, I finally got it into my head that maybe I could submit something to the City Paper. Dixon had left for the Washington Post -- for a tenure that would turn out to be pretty short.

So I submitted a review of Jim Dine's show at the National Gallery. Then-arts editor, Leonard Roberge, sent me an extensive edit -- basically challenging me to completely rewrite the piece, and stripping out a lot of art-world jargon.

Really, it was Leonard who quickly schooled me on how to write to an alt-weekly audience and put me in line with the CP stylebook -- he was also an art-history nerd, with a master's in contemporary/modern art. He cared passionately about the stuff I was covering.

In the piece on Mingering Mike and Wolfgang Tillmans, you write about two wildly different artists. What inspired you to write about the two of them together?

At the time, I was really just trying to find a way to shoehorn more gallery coverage into the paper -- gallery pieces tended to be picks, running at 250 words. That said, I do think there's a bit of a linkage between the two: Tillmans seems to be an inauthentic prankster, using casual snapshot aesthetics in his photography and pinning up pictures with scotch tape and binder clips, or playing with/making fun of heroic postwar abstraction, making homoerotic jokes using images of military men, etc. Yet Tillmans' work has at its heart a definite moral compass, a strong ideology about personal freedom and contemporary culture. So here are two guys who on the outside seem to be parodists or pranksters, but who both are expressing some fairly heavy content.

When you critique an artist's work, like in your "Squaresville, U.S.A." piece with Edward Hooper, are you knowledgeable about the artist's entire oeuvre, or do you just consider what will be presented at the exhibit?

Well, you have to know about what isn't in the show, too, in terms of evaluating how effective the curator was. Obviously I'm not going to write at length about works not actually in the show -- but I will mention unfortunate or misleading omissions.

Your reviews aren't scathing, even if you think the project wasn't a complete success as in the show, "The Mod that Failed." What are your feelings about critics who feel their major role is simply to bash people's work?

If a show is truly awful, if it really has no redeeming value whatsoever, why would you write about it? Writing about a show validates it: You are proclaiming that this show is somehow an important contribution to the conversation overall, even if it's flawed. The modernism show was a mess, but it was important because of the sheer array of objects it presented and the broader points about the political legacy of modernism that the curators seemed to be bypassing.
I am very critical, though, and this can make people upset. But I feel that you have to pick apart a show and have high expectations for it. This is the only way you can keep a local art scene from being provincial and self-satisfied.

What would you say is your main role as an art critic?

My role is to make people understand how important visual culture is to daily life -- how avant-garde gallery culture is basically the leading edge of culture in general, a sort of proving ground where artists try to figure out what the present moment is actually about. I also want people to understand that this seemingly complex stuff is meant to be experienced and enjoyed. This city is full of free art museums. It's a crime not to actually use them.

Interview with Little Britain

While you’ll be able to find the revised, much truncated version of the same interview in the latest issue of Complex Magazine (Which I advise you pick up. It has Kevin Smith and Seth Rogan on the cover. Huzzah!), here is the long as a grocery list version of the interview for your viewing pleasure, featuring all the nitty gritty little bitties you WON’T find in October/November issue. Enjoy!

Your name is David Walliams but you used to be David Williams. Why did you change your name?

David: To join British Equity, which is the union in England, you can’t have the same name as someone else, and there was already someone named David Williams.

Okay, so you changed it?

David: Yeah.

Okay, so can you tell me more about your swim across the English Channel?

David: Well, we’d done some work with this charity Comic Relief, which is run by Richard Curtis who’s the screenwriter for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, you know, those films, and we’d done some comedy sketches for them to raise the money, and they sent it to Ethiopians. And while I was there, this guy who runs Comic Relief asked ‘is there anything you ever wanted to do,’ and I said, yeah, I always wanted to swim the English Channel, and he said, ‘Well, you can do it next year.’ And I was like, oh, okay. And then I started training, and eventually the day came, and you know, God was on my side. It was nice calm weather and the sun was shining and I managed to do it. So it was great, my achievement outside of the world of comedy in my career that I’ve done that’s special.

So, Richard Curtis started Comic Relief?

David: Yeah, Richard Curtis started Comic Relief in the mid-80s. There was Band-aid, and Live-aid, so it became a comic thing, stuff mainly for Africa. In England, it’s a big thing, it’s like a telethon you have every year for Comic Relief.

And so, did Matt get the Proclaimers?
(Matt enters the room)

Matt: Hi there! How’d the Proclaimers thing happen? Well, me and David were approached by Peter Kay, who is an enormously successful comedian in the UK, and a couple of years earlier, he had done a kind of single for Comic Relief which was really, really successful, and sold a lot of money for Comic Relief. So he had another idea to do a song with the Proclaimers and take the 500 Miles song and do an update of it. I’m a massive Proclaimers fan, I’ve met them a number of occasions, and I’m a massive fan of Peter’s, and so we both got involved with that and it was great fun.

So now that you’re both there, when was the first time you met?

David: It was in 1990, we were both in the National Youth Theatre, which is an amateur theatre for young people. Matt was about 16, and I was 18, and we became friends, talking about comedy that we liked. And then, a few years later, we decided to do a show together, a fringe festival. You know, in Scotland in every August, there’s a contest for all the comedians and people at the theatre who put on shows. And so it went from there. And TV people come to that festival and try to spot talent, and we got some opportunities from there. And many years later we did Little Britain on Radio 4, BBC Radio 4, and then we got picked up for TV.

Now how did it get picked up from radio? How did the transition work from radio to TV?

David: The great thing about the BBC is that it’s a huge organization, which has many different kind of options for creativity, so when you do a radio show there and it’s successful, the TV people are aware of you, so actually, the path was quite smooth. The challenge for us was to make a show that was especially better than it was.

Matt: We now have detailed make-up, and nice kinds of crazy cameras and tracking shots, and could use the music to underscore some of the action. To create a package that worked for the TV show.

Now, when you bring the show to the America, are you going to have American writers, or are they going to be the same writers from before?

David: We finished filming the show. Some of the British characters that you may know from the British series have come to America for various reasons. Like Vicky Pollard was caught trying to burn down a ride in Disney World and has now been sent to Boot Camp. Daffyd is enrolled at the University, that kind of thing. And now, we got new characters who are American who have been put in the show.

Are you going to have Kenny Craig? He’s my favorite character.

David: Kenny Craig we did film, but I think it’s likely to be in the DVD extras.

Matt: Actually, it’s quite a nice scene, but we just didn’t have room for him. It’s just a nice situation to be in that you can’t even fit in all the stuff that you like. So it’ll be an extra on the DVD.

So can you say any of the new characters, or is that totally in secrecy until it debuts in America?

David: That’s not a secret at all. We’ve got a bunch of new characters. One is Ben Gordon, who’s a retired astronaut who prides himself of being the eighth man on the moon and doesn’t want anyone to forget about it. We’ve got a mother and daughter, Elly (may be spelled wrong) Grace and her mom, the daughter is about seven, played by Matt. And they say cutsey things to each other, like when the mom is putting the daughter to bed, like, she’d go, “I love you more than rainbows.”

Matt: (In voice of character, a higher pitched voice with a bit of a lisp): “I love you more than chocolate milk.”

David: “I love you more than bunny rabbits.”

Matt: “I love you more than penises.”

David: She says all the rude things that she picked up at the playground and she gets really offended. We’ve got two guys who hang out, big kind of muscly guys called Tom and Mark, and they’re gym buddies, and they have this sort of strange homo-erotic [relationship]. They’ve got massive muscles but extremely small penises. (laughing) So it’s sort of the subtle Little Britain humor there.

Can you guys tell me what’s the difference between American and British comedy?

David: Um, the accents sometimes.

Matt: Some of the words that people say are slightly different.

David: Or they mean slightly different things. It’s hard to categorize really because, you know, what has come out of Britain in America are Monty Python and Benny Hill. They were kind of different to each other, and the stuff that’s come out of America were different, too. So I think the only thing is that some of the times, the characters [in Britain] are like losers. In America comedy, sometimes, with an example of a sitcom, the character will be quite smart and say funny things. Whereas, in Britain, all the characters are like, they’re funny characters and we’re invited to laugh at them. There are very few British comedians who you can claim to be cool. You couldn’t imagine someone with the glamour of like a Chris Rock.

Matt: I think in British TV, the comedy is seedier and less asperational. And the people in American comedies are more handsome. They look healthier!

David: There are about 6 people in Britain who are as good looking as that. They wouldn’t be on comedy.

Matt: It wouldn’t work. They would just be smoking pot and doing nothing.

What about shows that are from Britain but are being Americanized? I mean, you guys are keeping it real by keeping it British.

Matt: We were approached by Simon Fuller, who had been talking to HBO about bringing us over. But I think if we were on say, network television, than we probably would have chosen to sell the concept of Little Britain and they could have done a Little America, and you would have your own actors, and you would have a Vicky Pollard style of character, but she was America and had America references. But I think because it’s HBO, they’re a little more into…they’re okay for the more individual idiosyncratic sort of writing that will be uninhibited.

David: Well, they already have a good relationship with Sasha with Ali G, and Ricky had a big success with Extras, so I think they just really trust the talent and really like giving the people the great opportunity to do what we do. And they really didn’t want to tell us what not to do very much. They wanted us to make it relevant to the American audience, which is what we wanted, but they didn’t say you have to make all your characters American, or that you can’t do this one or that one, so they let us follow our instincts. So it’s really been a harmonious relationship. We were taken by surprise. We thought, like the obvious, they just wanted to make the right version of it and that would be the end of it for us, and we’d just sit at home and receive the royalty checks, which would be fantastic. But they let us do it. It’s amazing for me and Matt, just look where Sasha went.

Matt: He made the funniest film in the last 25 years.

So have you guys ever thought about making a film? I mean, Lou and Andy seems like the perfect choice for a movie.

Matt: We thought about it. It means getting up, you know.

David: We have offers. Simon Fuller even said to us that ‘I would personally fund a Little Britain film,’ but at the moment, we haven’t quite had the idea that makes us think that that’s the right thing to do. And we really like working on tv. And I do feel that comedy works very well on TV and in a half hour chunk. I think it’s probably harder to make a film that’s funny all the way through. I mean, you could probably count the comedies that are really genuinely funny all the way through on both hands. You know, it’s not that many. It’s really hard. Because another thing, after about an hour, you might get bored and get tired of laughing. With our show, it’s relatively short, and it’s over in about 25 minutes. And we work in sketches as well, so we’re not even maintaining a narrative for that long. I mean, at some point…we’re doing other things right now at the moment. We’re doing other films, but they’re not Little Britain films.

Yeah, like you were in Narnia for a bit, right?

David: I play a very small voicing part of a bear. I suppose I’ll get some kind of Oscar nod…but I’m not sure if it’s going to be forthcoming.

Matt: (Joking) I think you picked up the Golden Globe, which is amazing. And if you were going to lay a bet, I’d lay it on David. Because I’ve never heard lines said like that.

So, you guys span very far across the world. I saw you guys had some French stuff, Spanish stuff. Where else do you guys think you span to?

Matt: What do you mean?

Like, how far is your audience around the world?

Matt: Well, yesterday, I’m here in LA with David, and yesterday, I was stopped by people who were Portuguese, people who were Israeli, and other various countries. I think it plays in about 40 countries around the world. I think it’s like, in some countries, like Australia, we’re really big. We actually toured in Australia, which is just thrilling, and in other countries where fans may have found it on DVD, so it’s not massive everywhere, but it’s shown a lot.

David: I suppose there are a lot of visual jokes in it that’s quite colorful and fast moving, so I suppose it’s one that probably translates to other audiences. But if we talk about Monty Python, which was world famous. It is an incredibly avant garde piece of work, and yet, that kind of captured people’s imaginations in America, so you can never truly predict what’s beautiful or what might just be too weird when it comes to Britain, but actually, it’s the biggest comedy export that Britain’s ever had.

You guys did a lot of episodes live in front of a real audience in Britain. Are you guys going to do that in America, too?

Matt: Well, when we recorded the show, we did about a month on location in North Carolina and then we went to Los Angelas and we recorded a lot of sketches in front of the audience, and we also played a lot of the stuff we did on location.

Uh huh, and how did that go?

David: Yeah, it was great. We had David Schwimmer directing our studio sequences. He had a lot of experience. He was both and actor and director in that area and he was pretty fun to work with. He’s actually a really great comic actor. But he’s got loads of fantastic ideas. And we got some really good guest stars, like we had Rosie O’ Donnell, who we got to do a sketch in. Paul Rudd plays the French President in a sketch which involves the British Prime Minister and the President. We were very lucky to work with these people. The Rosie O Donnell scene is really, really outrageous. We’ve already met her in New York, and we wrote the sketch around her. I’ve very surprised that she did it. It was quite outrageous.

Now I heard the word Prime Minister in there somewhere. So, I guess that means Sebastian’s coming back?

David: Well, yes, Sebastian. We kind of wanted to make that character work, but we weren’t quite sure how to make it relevant to the American audience if he was still in love with the British Prime Minister. So we made Sebastian the Prime Minister, and now he’s in love with the American President, played by Harry Lennix, and so we’re hoping that Barack Obama wins because it will make our show seem really up to date.

Matt: Because he looks like him.

David: You can imagine that if Obama wins, he’s really quite sexy, so you can imagine the world leaders really falling for him. You can’t really fall for George Bush.

Matt: What about Ronald Reagan? He’s not sexy. The next President has to be sexy.

David: Ford was before Carter.

Matt: Was Ford before Carter?

David: He wasn’t sexy, so that blows my whole idea out of the water.

Matt: So the next President has to be gorgeous. What about Hilary? Hilary’s got something. She’s got something about her.

David: She’s not going to be the one.

Matt: Oh, she’s not going to be the one? Well, she has something. What about McCain? Is McCain sexy?

Not in particular.

Matt: McCain makes us fries.

David: McCain makes us chips.

Matt: You see, what we call chips, you call fries.

Yeah, yeah, chips, fries. Okay, speaking of a character like Sebastian and Davyyd, though, I’ve heard you’ve gotten a little criticism over your gay characters. But Matt, you’re openly gay, so what are your feelings about that?

David: Well, I’m not openly gay (laughing). I’m closeted.

Matt: I say I’m gay, but I’m not reeeeally.

David: We hope that all the characters we portray, even though they’re comic characters, there’s always going to be a level of critique in a comic character. I hope we do them with warmth. And that you like our characters. I think Daffyd is really rather a sweet character, and he’s rather emotional. Sebastian is in the group of unrequited love, and so you really can’t help but kind of feel for them. So I’m hoping that we do it with warmth. Of course, it’s never our intention to offend people. But you know, somewhere along the way, I’ve heard that people, some even within the British crowd, say that Borat is racist, and you just think, oh come off it. It’s not intended in that way. It’s just a really funny comic character. I mean, with Inspector Clouseau, it’s racist against French people. And you know, it’s quite tedious. People do have a point, but unfortunately, if you do that, you might as well get rid of all comedy.

So are you guys living in the US now, or are you going back to Britain?

David: We came out here for three months to actually film the show and rehearse it. We’re here for promotions, speaking with you.

Matt: We sort of spend it half and half.

David: We spend the mornings in England and the evenings in America.

Matt: Yeah, we go home for lunch and then come back.

David: The more time we spend here, the better, in terms of the more American culture we soak up, the more competent we’ll feel when creating our characters.

Matt: And the less dreadful our American accents will sound.

Is there anything that you haven’t told a lot of people that you’re willing to share with us?

David: Yeah.

Are you willing to disclose?

Matt: Um, do you mean in life or to deal with the TV show?

In life, yeah. Life in general.

Matt: Well, let me think. I don’t know. What about you, David?

David: No, I can’t think of anything that I’d like to share at this point. But I think the thing to say about the show is who is that we’re catering to a new audience. And we have to sort of think of the person who’s never seen it. We have to perform for an audience that’s never seen it. So as much as it’s the British characters coming to America, it’s like the first sketch that we’ve ever done. You know, the first time you see Daffyd. You know, there’s nothing you need to know about these characters to enjoy it.

Matt: And if you already have enjoyed the show, this works as season four, and if you haven’t seen it already, it works as season one.

What about this new audience you’re going to have, because you’re huge in Britain, so you’re starting almost afresh here. What’s that like?

David: It’s really great. It’s actually like being new again, and it’s quite exciting. It’s where you’ve got everything to prove. So it’s actually been a real thrill. I remember that when we did the first sketch in front of the audience, I could remember standing there, and I thought, Oh, my God, we have to try to make people laugh in America. What if somehow no one finds us funny? But actually, there’s no difference between a British and American audience. People still laugh in all different places. When we were in Australia touring there, to make people laugh is extraordinary. But I think comedy’s much more universal than people think.

Matt: You know, the world feels a bit smaller these days. We’re all watching stuff on YouTube and downloading stuff, and you know, the number of imports in both countries seems to be more than ever before, and so actually, I think culturally, we’re probably closer than we’ve been in 25 years. We have the same acts in the music charts and something like that. But it was good for us to come here, for us, because it was the right time for us to have a fresh challenge. The show became bigger in Britain than many shows tend to be, and it was kind of hard to know what to do with it. So I think if we hadn’t had this opportunity, I’m not convinced we would have gone on to make series four of Little Britain, certainly not straight away. I think we might have decided to do something else. So naturally, when this opportunity presented itself, it seemed like the right time to take on a fresh challenge. And you know, it’s great to go places where not that many people know you.

David: You know, it feels quite organic.

Is Tom Baker coming back too doing the narrations?

David: Tom is still the narrator. It’s off and on. We have the American person, who would it be, it’s William Shatner. But then it’s comparing and contrasting America and Britain, which is kind of the concept for the show. It’s really just an excuse to have lots of comic characters. We’re back with David Arnold, who’s the composer for a lot of film music. He did Stargate, a lot of other movies, so there’s a lot of continuity with the British show.

Matt: Changing Lanes. I thought that he did the music for Changing Lanes starring Ben Affleck.

Changing Lanes, Oh, yeah, with Samuel L. Jackson, too, right?

David. Yeah, he’s one of the biggest film composers in the world.

Matt: Yeah, I think he also did the music for The Stepford Wives.

Are there any things on your show that you think would not fly in America? I remember the first time I saw the character who drinks from his mom’s breast. I nearly threw up.

David: We actually have him here. Bitty, we call it. That’s what he says to his mom when he wants her breast milk. Well, the showrunner and the director of all the location material said to us ‘that I’d actually like to see that character, maybe they go to stay with their American relatives.’ Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. We made that for something to do for that character. A British family coming over to America, and they’re too polite to say anything about it, so it actually worked out quite well. The main thing we didn’t want to do was stuff that was really out of date, or things in America that were just too late. Like stuff that people have already done. Like Michael Patrick [*Can’t make out last name*] who’s really an encyclopedia for all things American comedy can say, ‘well actually, someone did this sketch on Saturday Night Live five years ago.’ We lived in Big Britain we didn’t see every big American show.

Besides SNL, are there any other sketch comedy shows that have given you any kind of inspiration for American TV?

Matt: Well, we’ve see some of Mr. Show. Mr. Show is my favorite comedy sketch ever. They did some really interesting and funny stuff.

David: And Tim and Eric. And Kids in the Hall. I know that’s Canadian.

So you have a lot of great catchphrases. Are you afraid the show might become just a show of catchphrases in America, what do you think?

David: I’m never afraid of that because I like catchphrases. Like Austin Powers, Mike Myers did that and I thought he was brilliant. He went, ‘Yeah, baby.’ It becomes a way people speak and it’s actually an exciting thing. But I think if you try to create catchphrases for their own sake, then it generally doesn’t work. But if you integrate into the sketch, like Daffyd is the only gay in the village, and he kind of has to proclaim that at some point because that’s what the sketch is about.

Matt: Monty Python had catchphrases, and that’s good enough for me.

David: Yeah, Monty Python had catch phrases. But if my mom wants to talk about the Spanish Inquisition, to me, it’s never about things. The thing is when you think of it and write it, you don’t want to put it in a false way, and you try to catch yourself and make sure you’re not [doing it].

Matt: It’s hardly a substitute for a joke. If it feels right, then we’ll do it.

Grey's Anatomy Season 4 DVD Review

Rich Knight
TV 14
740 minutes
No Rate
Starring: Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, Justin Chambers, and Patrick Depsey
Directed by: Rob Corn, et al
Produced by: Shonda Rhimes, et al
Written by: Tony Phelan, et al

At its very worst, Grey’s Anatomy is the kind of treacle that deserves to only be seen at two PM by your mom on her day off, with the only thing separating it from being a true blue soap opera being a lack of inappropriate organ cues and an eye patch for Dr. Shepherd. But at its very best, Grey’s Anatomy is a smart, highly addictive medical drama with deep, enriching characters, emotionally compacted storylines, and worthy cliffhangers that aren’t just thrown in for good measure. Luckily for us, season four of the acclaimed show is much more of the latter than the former.

The show: 5 Stars

Grey’s Anatomy is not House, and it took me a long time to come to grips with that. Being that I’m not the fervent Grey’s fan who gets with his lady friends every Thursday night for a evening of ice cream and McDreamy, I was a little skeptical about watching a whole season of the show, as I’d only seen it in brief snippets before in the past. But after you get beyond that initial first episode, which is mainly played out in exposition form to get you caught up with what happened last time on Grey’s Anatomy, the rest of the season, short as it is because of the writer’s strike, flies past you at a break-neck speed, turning this Hugh Laurie fan into a die-hard lover of the inhabitants of Seattle Grace.
For the uninitiated, few of you as there are, Seattle Grace houses a plethora of interesting doctors and nurses, with the central focus being on Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), a brilliant second year resident who has to deal with many problems. One such problem is being the daughter of a legendary expert doctor, who recently just croaked last season, and another is the love affair she has with Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Depsey), which is on again, off again, more times than a light switch. These two conflicts lead to a lot of drama this season. But wait, there’s more! (Spoiler alert!) This season also sees the break-up of a rather ephemeral marriage (in the first four episodes, no less!) from last season, a re-appearance of Alex’s old, just-had-her-face-changed flame, Ava (With sexy results), and also a few new characters to boot, including Meredith’s hot half-sister, Lexie, Burke’s new replacement, Erica, and a pretty little nurse named Rose that soon takes the place of Ms. Meredith Grey in Dr. Shepherd’s heart (But is it real love, or just a rebound shot to the basket?). If all those names have you swiping your hand in the air and saying, “Aw, who needs all that noise?” then you’re just like me before I took a look-see at this season, which is really as addictive as everybody says it is.
What always bothered me about Grey’s Anatomy in the past is that the show was never really about the medicine but more about the people behind it. It was more about emotions, feelings, and sex; lots and lots of sex. But once you get to know these characters, feel these characters, and even love these characters, the medicine sort of fades into the background, and it’s not as important as the problems these characters are facing right here and now. That rings especially true in this season, where the characters face some pretty heavy decisions that not all of them come out of safely.
One pivitol scene features a taciturn Cristina (Sandra Oh), somberly singing “Like a Virgin” by Madonna in a morgue after hearing news that her old flame, Burke, who left her at the alter in the last season (Probably because he was fired from the show for calling T.R. Knight a rather un-pleasant name), just won a prestigious reward and never mentioned her in the article written about him. At this point, you hurt for Cristina just as she hurts, knowing that behind that competitive scowl of hers is a shattered individual who hides behind that mask of hers because it’s the only way to shield herself from everybody else’s pity, which her character could never handle. I’d like to see the characters on House have that much complexity to them.
Also, as known as Grey’s is for having such a breath-takingly beautiful cast, it’s really the lesser sweet eye candy that really drives home the emotional impact of the show. Dr. Bailey, nicknamed “The Nazi” for being so tough, has one of the saddest episiodes of the season when she goes through marital troubles with her selfish husband who hates being a stay at home dad because it’s so emasculating to him. When her baby, Tuck, has a horrible accident on his watch, the mere look in her eyes is enough to send most running for the Kleenex box. Not me, though. I’m all man…but others I’m sure. Sniff sniff.
There are plenty more poignant, funny, and ultimately cathartic episodes on this season that really make this show worthy of its accolades. Season four is not to be missed, and it’s a good start-up point if you’ve never seen seasons 1-3, or its spin-off show, which I’m told is terrible, Private Practice. It gives it to you in sweet and syrupy doses, and is enough to handle at any temperature, which always seems to be hot, hot, hot on this show. Hugh Laurie now has some competiton in my life, with the medical mystery being, which show do I like better, House or Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll have to wait and watch both new seasons this year, making my Tuesday and Thursday night schedule now jam packed with shows. DVR, I need you, stat!

The Disc: Four stars

Fans, you’re in luck, as this five disc set truly caters to those who have been watching the show from the very beginning. If you haven’t been watching the show, though, don’t fret, as the excellent booklet inside the casing gives you a comprehensive, albeit basic, anaylsis of the show up to where we are at now. It beats the hell out of chapter selection notes, I’ll tell you that.
Besides the stellar packaging, though, which also comes with a disc full of sneak peaks of Dirty Sexy Money and Private Practice, there’s also audio commentary on a few episodes, revealing once again that the morose characters on the show don’t match their genuine personalities as they laugh, giggle, and snort at their own jokes just like everybody else in real life. Every audio track is worth a listen, and if there’s only one complaint I have with them, it’s that there aren’t enough of them, as only certain episodes have commentary and not all of them. Bummer.
“New Docs on the Block,” discusses the three new characters on the show, Dr. Erica Hahn, Rose, and Lexie Grey, with all three of them talking about what a great pleasure it is to now be a cast member on the show. Whatever. As long as you three don’t mess up the chemistry with the already existing characters, you’re alright with me.
“On Set With Patrick and Eric,” is a brief little featurette about McDreamy and McSteamy heating up the screen for all the ladies out there who can’t get enough of them. Repeated clips of McSteamy stepping out of a bathroom with a towel draped around his waist are shown more than once, so those who get overly excited really fast, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. “Good Medicine: Favorite Scenes” seems to be a wasted opportunity, as the comments on the scenes don’t really feel all that justified, but the “In Stiches: Season Four Outtakes” more than makes up for it, making Grey’s Anatomy, for all its mopey eyed moments, look like the most fun show to work on in show business. Everybody’s just letting loose and goofing around, and you can tell that the cast members really love showing up to work everyday, the outtakes being proof of that.
What most fans will probably love the most though are the extended cuts of some of the episodes they saw during the season. With the writer’s strike putting a huge damper on the series, allowing only 17 episodes to provide a true story arc, the writers pushed all they could with the time they had, and it shows, as the extended cuts add a bit more depth and undertone to the stories. Honestly, these cuts do so much more than the requisite deleted scenes that of course come bundled with this package that don’t do anything but elongate scenes that don’t need to be elongated. Overall, though, this package is really stacked and any passing fan of the show will really appreciate all the work that went into making these special features, well, special. Really, the only thing missing here is an autographed scapel from Dr. McDreamy himself, and that sounds awful dangerous to me, even for the TV-14 and up crowd this show is pandeing to.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mother daughter team bike to save the planet

Sometimes, the best defense against global warming is a good offense, and Hopatcong resident, Suellen Malloy and her daughter-in-law, Christine Rojas found that the best way that they can make a difference in this world is to get on their bikes and ride.
“You can see a lot of what we’re doing to the environment from your bike,” Ms. Malloy says in relation to passing garbage on her many trails.
But besides just saving on gas emissions and carbon, she’s also taken it a bit further by entering the Brita Climate Ride, a five day fundraising event that starts in Manhattan, snakes its way through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and eventually ends in Washington D.C., making for a 300 mile trek.
“I do about 100 miles a week for a race,” Ms. Malloy says in regards to her training for the big event that starts on September 20th.
Her daughter-in-law follows a similar path.
“She (Ms. Malloy) is like my mentor,” Ms. Rojas says, “I would call her up and say, I did 50 miles today, and she would say, ‘Oh, great.’”

Outside of the grueling training, which the mother-daughter team have been doing cross coastal via text messages, emails, and telephone calls since Ms. Rojas currently lives in San Diego with her husband, another one of their biggest challenges is the actual fundraising part.
Both have to amass $2,500 dollars apiece for the ride, with proceeds going to Focus the Nation and Clean Air-Cool Planet. At press time, though, they still had a bit to go with that number, with Ms. Malloy at $550 and Ms. Rojas at $1000. Both hope to get more sponsorships for the race, with Freedom Waterless Carwash, Mason Street Pub, and Lakeview Acupuncture, just to name a few, already chipping in. But The Malloy Girls, which they call themselves, are ready to eat the cost if they can’t make the rest of the money in time.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Ms. Malloy says about paying for the rest of it if she has to. “We both really feel like it’s worth it,” Ms. Malloy says.
A trooper to the very end, this isn’t Ms. Malloy’s first race. It is her daughter-in-law’s, though, who wanted to do it to help save the planet and also spend some time with her mother-in-law.

“I was so up to do it,” Ms. Rojas says, “She said, ‘would you like to do it,’ and I said, oh yeah, I totally would.”
Ms. Malloy’s first race was for another beneficial cause, that one the fight against AIDs in an event called AIDS/LifeCycle. AIDS/LifeCycle is a bit more recognized than Brita Climate Ride since it has a few years under its belt, while this is Brita’s first year ever.
"In the AIDs race], you got to meet people who have AIDS who say, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” Ms. Malloy says.
Who knows what anybody will say after this race? But there are still a few spaces available if you’re willing to join the cause. Sign up or donate to the Malloy Girls on the website today:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Reprise

Rich Knight
107 Minutes
No Rate
Staring: Espen Klouman Hoiner, Anders Danielsen Lie, and Viktoria Winge
Directed by: Joachim Trier
Produced by: Karin Julsrud
Written by: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
Miramax Films

Being a Norwegian film, Reprise is the kind of movie that smart people will call you a philistine if you don’t like it, and simpletons will call you “fruity,” if you do (mostly because you’re watching something with subtitles in it). But Reprise presents the strange scenario where being on either side of the fence isn’t really an option. You’re really never sure whether to cringe, laugh, or squint at what’s going on in front of you, and for that reason, I think Reprise is a winner. If not just for being a film compacted with so many different emotions at once, then at least for being such a damn good movie with a great deal of emotional oomph.

The movie: Four and a half stars

Norwegians are smart people. It’s not enough that they have to have that cool diagonal slash through most of their o’s, making them look all sorts of erudite. But they also have to have sophisticated movies that aren’t quite drama and aren’t quite comedy, and surely aren’t what you’d call a black comedy, or, dramedy, if you’re familiar with all those hippy dippy terms these days.

No, Reprise doesn’t really fit into a category, and if it did, would it make it any more or less sublimely meditative in its scope or presentation? Probably not, but if it did fit into a category, I’d say it’d fit into this—Existential coming-of-age buddy flick. And even that specification isn’t doing it justice, because Reprise is more than just that and it’s not. It’s everything that I just mentioned and it’s none of those things at all. Confused yet? You have no idea what confusion means until you watch this movie.

The story centers around two friends who aspire to be novelists but meet very different outcomes in the process. One becomes successful on the onset, leading him to a quick, spiraling descent into depression that he never snaps out of. And the other achieves it a little later in life, never fully enjoying the wanderlust excitement that he pictures in his head when he goes on his little mental romps. Of course, being a foreign film, the characters think forward in flashback form, progressing the film in means that conventional American storytelling just doesn’t abide by. In that way, I was a little lost with how the story was moving. At times, many of the wishful thinking scenerios that the characters have in the movie are really just that, wishful thinking, and about four minutes of film can be spent on a reverie that never really happens. This makes you shake your head and say, “So wait, that was just a daydream?” And as hard as it is for me to admit this at the risk of sounding dumb, this happened to me a lot while watching the movie, especially at the end.

Even so, even if the emotional depth of the film is too great for me, I feel that it’s the kind of movie that grows on you for being so displaced and out of synch, sort of like the stories the two authors write in the movie. This creates a very meta feeling that the characters in the movie might be watching the same movie you’re watching, but only from a different seat in the house. I’ll explain.

In one scene in the film, one of the characters takes his girlfriend to France after suffering a mental collapse that has all but alienated him from pretty much everybody, including his mother and his best friend. While they’re in France, though, you feel as out of place as they do. You feel displaced and lost in a location that should be distinct and clear in your mind from hearing and seeing so many pictures of it so many times. But the depth of the character’s emotional distance is so great that you don’t feel right at home there and actually feel a sort of yearning to get back home to a steady narrative again. If there’s one thing I love about foreign films—well, besides their nonchalant attitude towards sex—it’s the feeling of change you go through yourself while watching the movies, and Reprise does that on many levels. In a way, it’s like watching a writer craft a new draft of a novel with every viewing, which is so apropos for this kind of movie about writers writing and dealing with their responsibilties as being writers.

And if you’re wondering why I said “apropos,” instead of “appropriate,” blame it on this movie for being so damn smart. It kind of rubs off on you by the end. But if you’re not looking for that kind of “rubbing off,” feeling, then stray far, far away from this movie, because it’s all about rubbing off—rubbing off old skin, rubbing off expectations, rubbing off even a future. If you’re interested in any of those topics, then Reprise is the movie for you. If not, as said before, then stay away. This movie isn’t meant for you. Philistine.

The Disc—2 stars

Special features are important on a DVD release. Commentary is usually my favorite feature of any movie that comes home, with the obscure and the humorous being a good mix on any voice track. Foreign releases don’t normally get that treatment, though, because sometimes, there would have to be two subtitle lines, one for the actual movie and one for the writer/director/actor who was in the movie talking about the film, leading to a jumbled mess if there ever was one.

There is a solution to this predicament—American critics can provide commentary on the movie, but Reprise doesn’t take that approach, which I think is a pity because a deep, introspective film like this could definitely use the discussion . Instead, we’re given some rather blah special features, with the deleted scenes being the only memorable addition to the movie.

In the “Casting Resprise,” feature, we find that the Phillip and Erik characters played in the movie were selected out of 1200 different people just to get the part, which is an interesting little tidbit, I guess, but seeing the two actors (Anders Danielsen Lie and Espen Klouman Honer, respectively), just sit on the couch with their legs crossed, discussing the acting process is just a little too boring for me. Sure, a movie about relationships, both of the friend and significant other variety, is going to be laden with dialogue and long moments of silence, but on a bonus feature, that can be fatal. I was yearning for less yack, more munching on snacks and throwing popcorn at each other. But I guess that was hoping for too much from a couple of Norwegians.

“All in Trier’s Details,” is another feature with a lot of hand waving and crossed legs as the director talks about all the minutiae that goes into making a film like this, including sound work, editing, and yada yada yada, talk, talk, talk. I get it! Making movies is hard work. Okay, you don’t have to talk your guts out about it. “Annecdotes,” is actually pretty interesting. Here, the director and his pal, Eskil, discuss the writing process of such an emotional movie, and how a lot of their own lives found a way into the picture. It’s candid, it’s real, and it’s enjoyable. You kind of wish the whole bonus features was really just all anedoctes, which really might have actually worked for a movie like this.

“Love’s Not Easy” discusses the painfully awkward sex scene in the film, and “So Sorry,” shows just how penitent Norwegians are, with the word “Sorry,” dropped so many times in the movie that a special feature was actually made just for that. The only real winner though is the “Deleted Scenes,” which features out of synch details that actually look like they complete the film better than just being extra added fluff. With such an out of place movie of this caliber, more out of place stuff just sweetens the pot. Overall, though, you feel a little cheated in the end for lack of a commentary and deleted scenes that all but should have been in the actual movie itself. The other features are just a giant, gaping yawn.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Editorial: Which Was The Best SNES Game Of All Time-A Link To The Past Or Chrono Trigger?

While it might seem like a pretty arbitrary question for an editorial, I think it’s valid because 1: A Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is currently out now for the Virtual Console, and 2: Chrono Trigger, arguably Squaresoft’s (Now, Square Enix), greatest game ever, Final Fantasy IV and VI, notwithstanading, is coming soon to the DS on November 25th. Oh, and 3. I’ve actually been playing A Link to the Past lately and forgot how doggone good it is.

Now, I know the issue is debatable, especially when the SNES had so many boss games— Super Mario World, Actraiser, and (okay, I’ll admit it), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time are all on my list for best games for the system—but there’s just something about both ALTTP and CT that elevate them beyond being just great SNES games. They’re in a category all on their own and easily qualify as occupants for best game ever territory.

But let’s count the many ways I love thee, shall we? A Link to the Past was a revolutionary milestone at the time that took the concept of light and dark and made it into a feature long before Samus would start meddling with all that nonsense in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Traveling back and forth through the light and dark realms, Link would find his precious Hyrule in a different state of turmoil whenever he would leap into the Dark World. My favorite moment of the game actually occurs early on when you first fall into the alternate universe and you come out a pink bunny, signifying that Link is good wherever he is, even in a world that’s supposed to bring out the worst in you.

What I really love about the game, though, is the fact that it’s so damn fun to play. Link has gone through some really interesting dungeons in the past (The water dungeon in particular if you’ve ever played The Ocarina of Time), but none were nearly as fun and, more importantly, as consistenly fun, as they were in ALTTP. Every single one is pretty short and easy to figure out if you just try out all your available options, which is something that wasn’t always true in some of the later games in the series (Again, I’m looking at you, water dungeon).

It was the kind of milestone of a game that makes you pay attention to Nintendo, more so than even Super Mario World, which was grand in its scope, but never really felt like a masterpiece that made you feel like turning it off was like turning off a part of fun you could never attain again unless you turned it back on. I even want to play it right now. Screw this editorial! Bah!

But then, there’s Chrono Trigger, a game that poses so many moral questions that it has about ten or 12 different endings just to answer them all. CT is like no other game you’ve ever played, even making its supurb sequel, Chrono Cross, which is supremely underated, look weak in comparison. I actually remember the first time I played CT and can remember how blown away I was by the music. In my opinion, and in the opinions of thousands of others, CT has the best music of any video game ever. Every song by Yasunori Mitsuda and legendary Final Fantasy composer, Nobuo Uematsu is perfect, utterly perfect, and they match the heroic adventure that even with 16-bits still looks spellbinding, even today.

And the characters can’t be beat. Frog, Marle, Lucca (MAGUS!), all of them complete a quest that’s as heart-rending as it is amazing. Seriously, no RPG has ever matched the splendor of CT, and no RPG probably ever will. We fanboys are hard to impress with new things, and no new thing has ever come close to being as good as CT, that’s just how good it is.

So, which one is better? Well, as surprising as this may be, I’m going to have to go with A Link to the Past. While the Chrono quest is comparable to none, and has way more replay value, I might add, A Link to the Past, just has more heart, more gumption to it. From its achievement music to when you get a new piece of heart, to the way the combat system just works on so many levels, A Link to the Past is the greatest SNES game in history, and I’m sticking by it. Chrono Trigger fans, who wants some?